Lessons from Cottage Life

Coanes’ Cottages, the faded wood sign indicated, a dingy white arrow pointing the way. After a long car ride from mid-to-northern Michigan, I was ready to tumble out and gallop down the dirt path to the lake shore. Dad opened the trunk as Mom gathered up a few stragglers in the back seat. I deposited my suitcase at the door of our rental cottage and waited. Mr. and Mrs. Coanes emerged from their own cottage, dressed in the usual matching plaid shirts, greeting us with a flurry of welcoming talk. I said on cue, “Hello there, nice to be here, thank you for having us” and was thus briefly released from other required social duties.

I ran through long-limbed, shady trees and dry grass stubble, arms flailing, legs reaching, breath rushing though me until there was the same old dock before me. The lake spread out from the shore, a shimmering mirror on surface, deep and clear just below barest green-blue waves. It was rimmed by deciduous and pine trees standing close to one another, tight against gusty storms that often swept off mammoth Lake Michigan a few miles away and Canada beyond that. The calendar had already been turned from August to September so it was far quieter than summertime’s high season. A few diverse trees on the other side bore leaves in process of transformation, green to gold, red to orange. Just the way I liked it.

It was the time we tended to visit the Coanes’ Cottages,  after their busy vacation season ended and kids were back in school. I vaguely recalled them from church; my parents had known well when they had still lived and worked in our hometown. And then they retired from “good jobs” as Mom indicated, and part-time pleasure became a full-time business. By early to late fall we could stay in an unclaimed (I guessed free to us) cottage which to me far better fit the description of a cabin. It seemed a kind of luxury to me to be there though I had stayed at other lakes, for other reasons (performing arts and church camps, friends’ summer homes). The homely but decent-sized cottage, cheerful fire in the fireplace when nights turned cool; the old log walls and wood floors emitting the musky smoky scent I loved–it was a fall reprieve from our already hectic city lives. The decor of the habitat was primitive and basic to me even as a young teen, but its simplicity soothed me, reassured me with its longevity and sameness.

My parents weren’t so much true outdoors people so much as general science lovers and nature admirers. Even Dad didn’t fish or boat much (he liked tennis and bike riding) though most other people came in droves to catch abundant bass, rainbow trout, perch,  pike, whitefish and more. And also to go boating, swimming, windsurfing, water skiing, to name a few. And that was only in summer. Winter held plenty of attraction with fun activities like ice fishing and ice boating.

I understood that the Coanes were different from my parents’ other friends, and also my friend’s parents. They preferred a pared-down sort of life, in sync with the outdoors all year, a far more rugged life. Mrs. Coanes held me in thrall as I shyly observed her. She exhibited such energy and strength, a pervasive independent attitude. Though this was a bit like my mother, Mrs. Coanes routinely fished with success (we’d eaten the catch many times) and even hunted deer; she tackled the same heavy work as did her husband. They had ruddy cheeks and calloused hands. Mrs. Coanes didn’t fuss with make up or bother calming her curly, silvery-brown mop of hair. I thought it curious that she and her spouse dressed about the same–long sleeved, plaid flannel shirts, baggy jeans or old khakis, laced leather boots, even in summer. From a distance they were nearly interchangeable when they had their caps on. They seemed to be perpetually in a good mood, easy to be around and full of stories about game or fish they got, the customers they had met, the changing of the seasons–and good books they had read.

They also played bridge and knew much about science, art and history. After dinner we often hung out at their cabin or they came to ours. I skimmed my novels or the cottage’s crossword puzzle magazines while the four of them played bridge or Michigan Kitty or Scrabble or checkers (I might  join in the last two). I listened to conversations about our town versus the lake life as well as my parents’ various engagements and our large family. They didn’t have children, an noteworthy fact to me, the youngest of five. I learned that they both had worked at Dow Chemical Company–it was the main employer of in Midland, Michigan and though they’d enjoyed being company scientists, they loved this life more.

I tried to imagine my parents owning such a place and failed–surely not Dad with his tuxedos as conductor for concerts or playing in string quartets, and Mom with attendant elegant dresses or her work as an elementary schoolteacher. But they had other sides to them. Mom had grown up on a farm and was not at all averse to physical work–her energy seemed indefatigable. Dad loved to tinker with cars and repair things. They both camped for many years with a pop-up camper and enjoyed the relaxation it brought.

But during lake visits and while staying with the Coanes, I saw them anew at times.

I learned Dad greatly enjoyed the water and loved to sail. He put on swim trunks and joined Mr. Coanes on the small sailboat buzzing with excitement.

Mom shouted after him, “Put a lifebelt on! You could capsize and drown! Don’t go out too long or far away– I want to be able to see you!” Her nerves were not hidden though her face appeared calm soon–or taut with anxiety just beneath the surface.

Mrs. Coanes tried to reassure her but it didn’t do the trick. Mom would jump up from her camp chair, walk along the muddy shoreline and flatten a hand against forehead to shield her eyes from sunlight. She tracked the sailboat’s progress.

I’d swim awhile, dog paddle deeper and be carried out by chilly, lapping wavelets to the floating dock. There I’d dive off the buoyant wooden square again and again. Pungent scents of lake; the sweet, crisp air of early fall! And Mom wasn’t worried about me. I was close enough, she knew I was a strong swimmer. But Dad was disappearing around a peninsula with Mr. Coanes, off on a small adventure.

“Why don’t you swim, Mom?” I asked.

It heretofore hadn’t occurred to me to ask. She was in her fifties and I somehow had assumed that, like most women of the times and that age, she just didn’t want to get into a suit and be sopping wet while in full view of the public.

“I don’t like water,” she said, scanning the distance. “Never have.”

I thought about that. She daily took baths, of course, fast ones it was true but she never had mentioned a dislike of water. She washed things, she watered the garden, she bathed us kids when we were little. Did she mean she didn’t actually like getting right into it awhile? Hard to avoid when bathing. I thought this most peculiar. And one thing I liked about being close to her was that she was the sweetest smelling person I knew, even her breath.

When Mrs. Coanes had gone elsewhere I got more nosy. “So–why?”

“I just don’t like how it feels, being doused. I never take showers, you know, a quick bath in tepid water. Or a sponge bath–don’t look at me like that, that is how it often was growing up! You recall I get up before you all do to get ready, and there is a line when I get out.”

“Well, so you feel you have to hurry?…but is there one real reason why? I mean, did something happen that was scary?”

“That’s the reason why: I don’t enjoy water,” she said with quiet exasperation and got up to pace the shoreline again, hands stuffed into pockets of her attractive Pendleton wool plaid jacket. I noted her sturdier casual shoes beneath a lighter tweedy skirt.

It made no sense; it bothered me. How could a person not like the way water slipped over skin, soft and smooth and refreshing? A bath was one thing but a lake….they were full of fascinating life. Viney weeds could suddenly wind around legs, true, and blood suckers met in the muck were gross. But toe-nibbling fish were okay. I knew Mom had a real appreciation of earth sciences, had studied them in college and often talked about geology and etymology. But she had never included water life in her enthusiastic fact-sharing, either. And I still didn’t quite know why.

“Hey Mom, stop worrying, Dad is a good swimmer and he’s with a veteran sailor.”

But she had to be afraid of water; she acted worried about his safety. I tended to find my mother fearless. Even if she hid a few anxieties, she tried to faced things head on. Perhaps that was what she was doing by letting him go ahead on the little boat each year, just staying watchful rather than becoming a little hysterical. My mind wandered–did someone she know actually drown? Did she come close to it? Did she get doused with water from a farm hose by one of her many mischievous, maybe sometimes mean brothers?

I felt as if I was seeing into their lives from a different angle, with more open eyes. And I also felt somehow less confined to childhood’s real with the bits of new knowledge. What else didn’t I know about them? I wasn’t entirely sure I was ready for much more.

Mom shrugged off my words, then tossed me a tolerant smile, as if I couldn’t begin to understand such things. Mrs. Coanes returned so I grabbed a towel, happy to get off on my own, to doze and dream, get a decent tan. Then Dad and Mr. Coanes edged back into view so I sat up again. Mom waved and jumped about as if she hadn’t seen them in days. I sat up. Dad was at the helm; he was sailing the boat by himself. Yes, it was a small boat but there was something about his hair ruffling in the wind, the honeyed sunshine on his elated face, arms and back strong and that easy joy so apparent. My father, set free awhile. Free from endless labors, from even family, from public expectations. It was Dad in the midst of water and wind as the boat skimmed the brilliant teal blue lake. He brought it in nicely.

Mom restrained herself as they finished up. She gave Dad a beach towel to dry off. He was alert, excited–my often taciturn, tired father was a joyously revised one. I congratulated him on his outing and Mr. and Mrs. Coanes noted what a natural he was at sailing. Mom, smiling easily once more, slipped her arm through the crook of his and they walked back up the small hill to the cottages.

I knew what I was going to do the next day: get my chance out there on that sailboat. I had had a taste of sailing at camps and longed to sail more, like Dad.

But that night as the adults played cards, I went down to the lake and sat on the end of the dock. The waves slapped against earth and dock in the sweetly comforting way I never failed to miss when back in the city. Frogs and crickets and birds sang and chirped. I listened for loons, those strange beauties. And an entire sky opened itself to me like a magic kingdom, moon like a beacon, even a harbinger of very good things to come. If I felt a passing pang of loneliness, I imagined another teen sitting across the water doing the same as I, feeling the same tender thrill, that sweet anticipation of an entire life ahead.

Those early autumn stars stirred and settled themselves in the swaths of another night and I imagined them like pinholes into heaven. I propped myself on forearms and tilted my head back to observe them in their true glory as twilight gathered more darkness. Such a perfect, confounding universe, so many questions to ask and answer. If there was one thing I knew for certain, it was that nature was my companion and would be my inspiration and solace my whole life long. I would never feel entirely bereft or lost with nature all about me.

I understood some of why the Coanes left our small city far behind, and why Mrs. Coanes simplified her life. Looking back she was a quiet pioneer, forging her own path in the early sixties when many women wouldn’t have dared–except perhaps, other outdoors women or athletes. How fortunate I was to have known them and to have enjoyed their hospitality. To learn a little about water’s powers and that far off country of grown up life and marriage.

 

6 thoughts on “Lessons from Cottage Life

  1. It is so lovely to think that a couple in mid-age along with your very own parents, made such a deep and abiding impression on young, sensitive and observant Cynthia. Who knows how living authentically and simply in truth to one’s core, as the Coanes seemed to do, – how it can make such a lasting memory on a young person as she or he is shedding the fledgling self and readying oneself to spread wings? And testimony is this lovely reminiscence. You are paying tribute to this couple and your own parents on such an ordinary thing as time spent on vacation, enjoying one another’s company, – I can almost see your father and mother as I write this, as I was privileged to know them. You do them great honor Cynthia, in sharing this memory. In this way, we surely can hope to live on and on should we be so blessed to have imparted such memories on our own children. I know yours will have a treasure trove someday of Mama Cynthia. Blessings!

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